From Star Trek to Superwholock: A Brief History of Fanfiction

Or, “How Shakespeare Beget Shades of Grey”

Throughout my high school years, I had my big anime awakening via Full Metal Panic!, and around the same time, I discovered and developed my love for the Ace Attorney game series. What do these two things have in common? They happened to be the two series I read the most fanfiction about — specifically romantic, ship-based fanfic. I never dared to write my own, but I was consumed by fanfics of these series, searching Fanfiction.net for new additions and chapters every week and rereading my favorites on a monthly basis.

I eventually moved away from my fanfiction-reading days, but I recently realized exactly why I was so consumed by these stories: fanfiction is a way for fans to shape their favorite movies, TV shows, books, video games and franchises in ways that feed the specific inner desires they know might not ever be fulfilled onscreen. But where does this desire, and thus its modern incarnation as fanfiction, originate from? From religion to self-insert crossover slashfics, this is a consolidated history of fanfiction. 

Myths, Legends and New Testaments

Fanfiction, or at least some form of it, existed long before the term to describe it came into being. It’s not a stretch to say that the earliest myths, legends and religion are in some way a form of fanfiction. The resulting mythologies and religions then developed their own “fanfiction” — Christianity is more-or-less a “fanon” (fan-canon) birthed from the New Testament, which is itself a Jesus-centric fanfic sequel to The Old Testament written by Jesus’ biggest fans, the apostles. 

Potentially blasphemous statements aside, the connections between modern fan culture and religion/mythology are undeniable. Christianity is arguably the biggest fandom on the planet and the Bible and Greek mythology are perhaps the most borrowed-from stories in history. Some of the greatest pieces of classic literature are fanfiction of myths, legends and religions — Dante’s Inferno and Paradise Lost being prime examples. In short, followers of a story wanting to create their own version or a continuation of said story is nothing new — humanity has been doing it for centuries.

Shakespeare, Sherlock and Public Domain 

Skipping over to the late 16th/early 17th century, we come across fanfic author extraordinaire William Shakespeare. Well, Shakespeare wasn’t actually as much of a sensation in his own time as he was in the decades and centuries following his death, but he was able to make a career out of writing plays that were, for the most part, works of fanfiction. Indeed, ol’ Bill was the E. L. James of his time, creating works using the characters, stories and ideas of others authors and changing just enough to call them his own.

That said, Shakespeare’s works aren’t really the first major example of fanfic, mainly because the concept of fandom hadn’t really been established at the time and because Shakespeare’s derivative plays could more so be seen as stage adaptations than fanfics. However, skip ahead two centuries in English history and we have a series of works that do fit the bill quite well: the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Just how close was the Sherlock Holmes readership to a modern fandom? Well, on top of fans arguing which of Doyle’s works were and weren’t part of the main Holmes canon, they also pressured the author via angry letters and full-on street protests to bring the character back after he was killed off — two phenomena that are undeniably and unfortunately still present in the fandoms of today. Sherlock Holmes fans also, you guessed it, wrote fanfiction, though there wasn’t a term for it at the time. The work of Sherlock Holmes fans — as well as similar early fandoms like the various incarnations of the Pickwick Club and Jane Austen’s sequel-writing nieces and fans known as the Austenites — served as the ground floor of what would eventually evolve fanfiction and fandom as we know it. 

Further building blocks came through the power of public domain and the invention of easy printing. Copyright laws weren’t enacted until the late 1700s, and even when the concept of intellectual property was expanded upon, laws initially only protected creations for 14 years. There were also two major revolutions of accessible printing via the invention and later commercial availability of the mimeograph in 1884 and its future equivalent, photocopying and commercial Xerox machines. Together, these factors made for a fanfic powder keg ready to explode. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s when the modern phenomenon of fandom and fanfiction would be built through the love and fervent creativity of Star Trek fans. 

Fan’s Fiction to Fanfiction

“Fan Fiction” was originally used to describe science fiction created by amateurish fans — if professional writers wrote “pro” fiction, then amateurs wrote “fan” fiction. This version of the term came into circulation in the 30s, but the meaning changed when Star Trek exploded into pop culture. The series was so popular that it sparked a fanzine called Spockanalia, created before the second season and published just in time for its premiere in 1968. Within the pages of this zine’s first issue were a number of fan-works related to/in celebration of Spock, from poems about the character to essays breaking down Vulcan culture. It also featured a few fanfics, two of which were by writer Ruth Berman and were reprinted from her own independent Sci-Fi zine, Pantopon. Theses pieces served as a turning point for fandoms and acted as a springboard for what would eventually become modern fanfiction. 

See, Gene Roddenberry loved the fans. Not only did he actively interact with “Trekkies,” but he was also very encouraging of fan works, going so far as to call Spockanalia required reading for all new writers brought on to the show and contributing a letter to the second issue. With this encouragement and with an outpouring of readers looking to contribute, the zine continued for four more issues.

Spockanalia wasn’t the first instance of fandom and fanfiction as we know it today, but it encompassed a lot of firsts for both, and along with the encouragement of Star Trek cast and crew, it served as the catalyst for modern creativity amongst fandoms. Following Spockanalia were dozens of other fanzines containing fanfics, then more when Star Wars overtook the sci-fi fan community in the 70s, then it was Battlestar Galactica, Indiana Jones, Blade Runner and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the 80s, then X-Files and Star Trek: TNG in the 90s and so on and so forth. As nerd culture and pop culture grew to become a larger part of culture as a whole, so too did fandoms and fanfiction.

Then came the internet.

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Harry Potter and the Fanatic’s Web

If Star Trek is the ground floor of fanfiction, then the internet is the rest of the whole dang building. In the same way that cheap printing technology and access to it helped fanzines (and by extension, fanfics) thrive when Star Trek took off, the internet’s widespread accessibility and freedom of communication bolstered later fandoms: Xena: Warrior Princess, The X-Files, fandoms of anime brought over to the states in the 90s and, another major pillar in the story of fanfiction, Harry Potter.

In October of 1998, the first site dedicated to all facets of fan fiction, fanfiction.net, went live. With this new way to share fanfiction — complete with archives, genre organization and a search function — the medium exploded. The oldest fanfic still available on the site is an X-Files Mulder/Scully shipfic titled “Little Helper” — written by Sheryl Nantus, who continued to write and submit fanfic to the site as recently as September of 2018 — and a majority of the site’s following first hundred submissions were also X-Files fics.

However, as popular as X-Files was in fanfiction.net’s early days, it pales in comparison to the first major boom of fanfics from a single franchise on the site, those written in the world of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Within the first two years of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’s U.S. release, there were over 1,200 Harry Potter fanfics on fanfiction.net. Once the first movies hit the scene, those numbers soared, reaching over 615,000 by 2019 and becoming the site’s most populated category. 

This boom created an effect similar to Spockanalia and the early X-Files fics on fanfiction.net: seeing others write their own original stories in the worlds of established franchises made more fans comfortable with the idea. With every hundred fanfics that went up, there was an increasing “everyone’s doing it” mentality, one that spread to other fandoms, snowballing online fanfiction into the massive presence it is today. Notable other fandoms that contributed to this internet boom were Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Doctor Who and a whole slew of anime brought over to America and fervently consumed by early internet-adapting generations (Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, Inuyasha, Bleach, etc.)

It was the proliferation of these fandoms, populated predominantly by kids and teenagers who quickly took to the internet, that caused fan-communities to flourish online, and with this growth came the subsequent modern boom of fanfiction.

Copyright Crackdowns and Careers

There have been several periods throughout the history of fanfiction and fan-generated content where copyright law acted as the villain of the story. But after a number of failed cease-and-desists and/or simple requests being easily met by fan creators, most IP holders eventually had a change of heart, pulling back on their pursuits to snuff out fanworks.

There are a number of contributing factors to the pullback of legal action towards fanfic, first and foremost being that IP holders have come to see fanfiction as a form of free advertising for their properties. Another major factor is the rate at which fanfic communities grew online; there were simply too many fanfics to police. Finally, a lot of creators proved to be incredibly supportive of fanfic writers, seeing it as both flattery and a way for young writers to hone their skills. 

Many fanfiction writers have gone on to write in a professional capacity. The aforementioned Sheryl Nantus made a career out of writing romance novels, and E.L. James famously converted her fanfiction into an original work to create a bestselling series of novels. Some fanfiction writers now even sell their works directly via services like Amazon’s Kindle Worlds.

The Modern Day

So where is fanfiction at now? Simply put, thriving. There’s a whole list of fanfiction-dedicated websites, including Archive of Our Own, which won a collective Hugo award for all its contributors and has been praised for its database organization superior to even the smartest tech. Fanfiction now encompasses a bewildering array of subgenres, themes, and is more accessible than ever thanks to fan-owned platforms like AO3.

However, perhaps the biggest and most important change in fanfiction is the recent integration of nerd culture into the mainstream of pop culture; with comic book stories, fantasy TV, and video games becoming mainstream, fanfic too has became less of a shameful hobby. Sure, it might not be on the same once-nerdy-now-cool level of Marvel, but it’s not the small corner of pop culture it used to be, and it had a long, interesting path to reach this point. 

Like the Big Bang, life on Earth and human evolution, fanfiction happened incidentally when all the scattered pieces more-or-less randomly fell into place. Since then, it’s thrived and grown into a massive phenomenon. And at its core is one of humanity’s oldest desires: to tell and retell stories that resonate with us and make sense of the world.

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Sean Aitchison

Sean Aitchison is a big fan of cartoons, anime and video games and is therefore a huge nerd who you should all make fun of. He also loves digging up the lost, and often cursed, treasures of pop culture's forgotten media. For more of his work, follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcasts, Pop Cultured and Influenca.

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One Comment

  1. my first internet communities were the geocities site rings for star trek fanfic, and I saved up for weeks to buy some of the old printed zines. reading through them and seeing the trends in writing styles over the years is still such a trip. this is a great piece, always cool to read about that early era online

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